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Quest for Single Voice Spurs Teacher Unions To Discuss Merger

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Spurred by a vision of forging one strong voice for teachers, leaders of several state affiliates of the nation's two major teachers' unions are holding separate talks on the possibility of merging their organizations.

Union leaders involved in the discussions note, however, that the path toward teacher unity--even at the state level--is strewn with obstacles.

In fact, the leaders say, the formidable political and philosophical differences between the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, as well as their respective state affiliates, may prove to be too great to resolve.

In states where merger talks are under way, union officials said last week that the efforts stand, at best, a 50-50 chance for success.

But the officials were almost undivided in their belief that one strong teachers' organization at the state level would be far better for teaching and education than the current two.

They noted, for instance, that the creation of one state organization would enhance teachers' already considerable political clout, eliminate duplication of services, and enable union leaders to better use money now spent on turf battles between the two rival unions.

"It would certainly increase the influence of teachers, and would take dollars that currently are used for jurisdictional disputes and translate them into dollars that would help public education,'' said Ed Foglia, president of the N.E.A. affiliate in California, one of the states where merger is being considered.

Affiliates of the N.E.A. and the A.F.T. in at least two other states--Minnesota and Wisconsin--are also currently engaged in some form of merger talks, union officials said.

And an official of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, an A.F.T. affiliate, said its leaders had struck an agreement with their counterparts at the Louisiana Association of Educators, the state's N.E.A. affiliate, to discuss the possibility of a merger. A high-ranking L.A.E. official said, however, that no such agreement had been reached, and that association officials were unaware that formal talks on the issue had been suggested.

A Major Obstacle

Officials from both the N.E.A. and A.F.T. affiliates in states where mergers are being discussed said the talks are occurring with the blessings of their parent organizations. Any merger agreement, they said, would be in keeping with the policies of the national bodies.

In California and Minnesota, the question of labor affiliation has become a major obstacle to a merger, union officials in those states said.

The A.F.T. and its state organizations are affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a labor federation. That affiliation, said Laurence J. McQuillan, a spokesman for the A.F.T., "is obviously something we feel really strongly about.''

The N.E.A. and its affiliates, on the other hand, desire independence from organized labor. They are concerned, officials have said, that they would lose their identity in a labor federation and find that nonteachers were speaking for teachers.

The N.E.A. has a policy governing the matter. That policy states that N.E.A. affiliates "will not enter into a merger requiring affiliation with A.F.L.-C.I.O. or any other labor organization.''

"We have a very high regard for the A.F.L.-C.I.O.,'' said Howard Carroll, a spokesman for the N.E.A. "But we want to maintain our independence and speak with an independent voice.''

One Teacher Voice

In Minnesota, merger talks between the 40,000-member Minnesota Education Association and the 17,000-member Minnesota Federation of Teachers have been conducted intermittently for several years, but have reached an impasse. Even so, the discussions will continue, officials for both unions say.

"It clearly would be better for the quality of representation of teachers if everybody was in one organization,'' said Larry E. Wicks, executive director of the M.E.A. "I don't think there is much debate about it in Minnesota.''

Edward C. Bolstad, executive secretary for the M.F.T. agreed. "We spend too much time and money competing with each other,'' he said.

Mr. Wicks declined to talk about the negotiations.

But Mr. Bolstad said that the M.E.A.'s most recent proposal, put forward earlier this year, was "a gentle way to put everybody into the N.E.A. structure.'' It was a proposal, he said, that "was just unacceptable to us.''

"We want to put together a structure .. that assures that one organization doesn't just get swallowed up by the other,'' Mr. Bolstad said.

He said his "pessimism'' about the future of public education makes him "optimistic'' about a merger.

"I could see a day when the problems become so awesome that they could be better handled by one large organization,'' he said. "When your problems outweigh your differences is when any merger comes about.''

California Discussions

Over the past year, officials of the 180,000-member California Teachers Association, the N.E.A. affiliate, and the 60,000-member California Federation of Teachers have met several times to discuss consolidation.

"Because we have found ourselves in agreement on a number of matters in the state, it seemed like an appropriate time to carry on some discussions to see if the two organizations can be brought together,'' said Miles Myers, president of the C.F.T., who instigated the talks.

Thus far, the discussions have produced "a stronger working relationship'' between the two unions, said Mr. Foglia of the He added, however, that the issue of teacher unity remains "problematic.''

Still, Mr. Foglia supports the idea of having "one teacher voice'' in the state.

"Some days I think its a pipe dream, and some days I really think it is going to happen,'' he added.

'Period of Courtship'

The talks in Wisconsin stemmed from a desire by the Wisconsin Education Association Council, an affiliate of the N.E.A., to end jurisdictional warfare between itself and other public-employee unions in the state, particularly the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers, according to state teacher-union officials.

That desire prompted to explore the possibility of affiliating with the Wisconsin A.F.L.-C.I.O., which prohibits its affiliates from seeking to win bargaining rights held by other A.F.L.-C.I.O. affiliates.

But to join the state labor federation, an organization must be linked to a national union that is affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. This requirement led the 45,000-member WEAC about 10 months ago to enter into discussions with the 9,000-member W.F.T., which is affiliated with the labor federation through its parent organization, the A.F.T.

Among other subjects, the possibility of merger between the two state organizations has been discussed at the meetings, officials from both unions said.

"Its fair to say that we have entered a period of courtship,'' James A. Blank, president of the WEAC, said.

He noted, however, that the question of national affiliation is a major obstacle to state-merger discussions.

"Our concern is strictly at the state level,'' Mr. Blank said. "Our organization is not interested in merging with the A.F.T.''

"We have major philosophical differences,'' he continued. "And when you have philosophical differences, it takes a long time to change things.''

Mr. Blank said that he had "kept the N.E.A. informed'' about AFT's efforts to affiliate with the Wisconsin A.F.L.-C.I.O. If WEAC reached an agreement that would allow it to enter the state labor federation, he said, the group would ask the national to consider changing its policy prohibiting an affiliation with the labor federation, or would seek a waiver.

"If the N.E.A. told us we couldn't do it, we wouldn't do it,'' he said.

Charles F. Canniff, assistant to the president of the , said his union has proposed that everyone in both state organizations belong to both the N.E.A. and the A.F.T. "They rejected that,'' he said, "because it would require an affiliation with the A.F.T.''

"We are tearing our hair out trying to resolve the issue,'' he said.

National Level

In 1973, leaders of the N.E.A. and the A.F.T. held formal talks on a possible national merger, but those discussions failed.

Although both national organizations support the concept of one national teachers' organization, no official talks on the subject have been held since that time.

N.E.A. policy authorizes the union's president to enter discussions on the possible establishment of one national body if there is the belief "that such discussions will be productive.''

But the policy also states that any national organization resulting from a merger must have no affiliation with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., guarantee minority-group participation in its governance, and use the secret ballot to elect officers.

The A.F.T. has no policy requiring minority-group participation in its governance structure, and elects its officials with open balloting.

"Our policy leaves the door open to merger,'' Mr. Carroll of the N.E.A. said. "But at the national level, there are no plans to discuss merger between the A.F.T. or any other organization at this time.''

Albert Shanker, president of the A.F.T., said that leaders of his organization "want to sit down'' with the N.E.A. leadership "and work out our differences.''

"If they were really interested in forming one strong, united teachers' organization, they wouldn't be raising all these issues before they sit down to talk,'' he said.

"I favor negotiating on the issues,'' he added. "Once you sit down, it is possible for each side to start horse trading.''

The topic of merger has recently been put before the A.F.T. executive council by one of its more influential members, Edward J. McElroy Jr., president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers.

In a Jan. 8. letter calling for an internal study of the union and its policies, Mr. McElroy raises the question of merger, without taking a position. (See Education Week, May 6, 1987.)

"The question of merger has been dealt with in fits and starts by both organizations for some time,'' Mr. McElroy writes. "Is merger with the N.E.A. a real possibility?'' he asks. "Should we make the first move?''

Discussions Not the First

The current state-level talks on the subject of merger are not the first.

In 1972, for instance, the New York State affiliates of the N.E.A. and A.F.T. discussed merger, and were actually able to forge a pact that unifed the two organizations into the New York State United Teachers. Members belonged, and paid dues, to both the A.F.T. and the N.E.A.

Three years later, however, the membership voted to disaffiliate with the N.E.A. That move prompted the N.E.A. to create a new organization, N.E.A. New York, which currently has nearly 30,000 members. The N.Y.S.U.T. has roughly 280,000 members.

Mergers have also occurred at the district level.

In 1969 in Los Angeles, for example, the local affiliates of the two national unions merged into the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Members were given the option of belonging to the C.T.A., the N.E.A. affiliate, or the C.F.T., the A.F.T. affiliate, and paid dues accordingly. That structure is still in place.

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